Who’s that girl? Women, war, and the challenges of identity

by Rita Manchanda and Antonia Potter Prentice

It’s been another knockabout month on the frontlines of that old unwon war of attrition about equality between the sexes. On the upside we had Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard thrilling the hearts of those who abhor sexism, misogyny and hypocrisy with her magnificent, finger-pointing skewering of the Leader of the Opposition on the floor of Australia’s parliament. On the downside, first we had Pakistani schoolgirl and human rights activist Malala Yusufzai shot in the head by the Taliban; then second, back in peaceful Canada, the well-respected Human Security Report Project was telling us that they found out this year that sexual violence against women in war isn’t quite the big deal we’ve been making it out to be (although to be fair they also reminded us that domestic violence in war settings—and indeed beyond—is a serious and neglected problem; a conflict perhaps to be recognized as such all on its own).

But without getting into the whys and wherefores of the data the Human Security Report got and how they used and presented it, the three events make you realize that the mere fact of being labelled a man or woman (or a boy or a girl) remains a very incendiary business indeed, even in peacetime. The fact is, labels matter, arguably more in wartime than in peace. After all, labels are what a lot of conflicts are about. Are you Muslim or Christian? Alawite or Sunni? Hutu or Tutsi? ‘Have’ or ‘have not’? ‘With us’ or ‘against us'? But is it less risky to ask ‘and are you are a woman or a man?’ Does that descriptive make any difference to the labels that went before? Not only do women have many different labels, and where they can, a tendency to use them in many different ways, but as we shall see, they have a venerable history of using common labels, and those that denote shared values, to make constructive contributions to resolving their communities’ worst ills such as armed conflict, to the benefit of all.

The thing is, that women, like men, are not just women. The other labels they can lay claim to might be ethnic (I’m Tuareg), religious (I’m Jewish), political (I’m pro-government) or related to things they do like bearing children (I’m a mother), bearing arms (I’m a guerilla), or bearing witness (I’m a human rights worker) — frankly bearing a whole lot of things besides, though that is not the particular axe we want to grind in this piece. So what difference does it make which of those labels a woman uses, or others use of her? Does it matter which she chooses to prioritize and when? Is she even free to do that?

Violence starts putting red lines and black and white boxes around 'who we are' in ways we might not always choose, as do national projects and our choice of politics. Life hangs on the balance of such labels—ask Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, Buddhist tribals attacked in Bangladesh, or people with Kurdish or Armenian roots, or professing Alawite or Sunni faith from Syria fleeing into bordering lands. And if to that I am label is added, ‘woman’ —that female body can become the ground on which some fronts of that war is fought: the purveyor of community identity and its reproducer can be sexually tortured and stigmatised, displaced, impoverished or widowed. Or, while still a child, shot in the head on the way to school.

Consider this: can Jamila forget who she is as another mass grave is unearthed where her ‘disappeared’ brother may be buried because he by virtue of being a Kashmiri Muslim was a suspect or worse expendable? Can Indu forget who she is when militants massacred her family because of who they were, forcing her to leave home and neighbours, to seek in town the ghettoized security of her community? Yes, Jamila is a woman but she is also a Kashmiri and a Muslim, entwined in complex ways with the ethnic and religious struggle, which defines her daily life; just as Indu, a Kashmiri Pandit woman lives in with quotidian explicit reminders with her community identity. There’s probably not a moment in the day when she is not conscious of who she is, in a way women and men living in peace in Delhi or Brussels are probably not.

Women have won a merited reputation for bridging the divides of sectarianism and political orthodoxy to come together and organize for peace – essentially using the common values of some of the shared labels (e.g. woman, mother, wife, schoolgirl) to find middle spaces between the harder line positions that come with some of the other labels (e.g. communist, monarchist, revolutionary, reactionary, warrior). Inspiring examples of using the female label as an organizing principle which transcends the recognized fault lines of conflict continue to crop up: the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition winning seats at the talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and inserting language on integrated approaches to social services and education and on addressing the needs of victims which would never otherwise have been there; Sudan’s Gender Experts Team (GEST) enabling women across community divides to bring recognized new perspectives into the peace process leading to the 2006 Darfur Peace; Somali women organizing a ‘sixth’ clan in 2002, transcending clan divides by forming a clan of women who came from each and every one; and there are many more. As Marie Mullholland, a self-proclaimed Irish nationalist republican who works with Protestant Unionist women said of her peace building work “it’s because I can imagine a future when those names won’t mean the same thing.”

Significantly, though, there aren’t examples of men organizing in the same way (or certainly none we know of; it’s an interesting side note that the international community has demanded stringent empirical research to prove the value of women’s contribution to peace making, while it has never demanded the same about men’s contributions). The reason for this is perhaps obvious: men can stick to their other labels as through them they can access power, resources and agency. Women’s organizing is typical of how marginalized people organize: their lack of status forces them to seek common ground and shared positions – even with plenty of disagreement, and some unresolved issues along the way. If only more peace tables looked like a women’s coalition for peace! They don’t of course, because the key ingredients of power and resources – and let’s not forget the weapons – aren’t there.

What’s interesting though, is that whether you think that women get socialized in a gender stereotypical way to ‘nurture’ and ‘care’ or not, the times they’ve got close to peace processes have shown they tend to push for issues like inclusion, equality, justice and social reform. They also tend to ally with and support other marginalized groups. In Afghanistan in the 2003 Constitutional Jirga 20 percent of the voting delegates were women, albeit many were proxies of warlords; but women affiliated to the Afghan Women’s Network forged alliances with other marginal groups, the Uzbeks, supporting the demand for minority rights – and getting recognition of the Uzbek language and gender sensitive language in the new Constitution. In Nepal, in the slew of agreements that comprised the peace road map – Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2006) the Interim Constitution (2007) and the Constituent Assembly (2008-2012), the motifs that pop out are inclusiveness, proportionality and participation, derived from an alliance of discriminated and institutionally excluded groups – women, indigenous peoples, and oppressed castes. But once the conflict resolution momentum abated and polarized politics returned, political party identities reasserted themselves and gender became a particular (and predictable) casualty: for example, no one troubled to lobby for any of the almost 4,000 (they were just under 20 percent of the full Maoist fighting force) women combatants to get demobilization, disarmament and reintegration packages designed according to their needs, as was being done for their brothers in arms.

The frustrating thing for many is that the ‘forgetting’ of gender (label or fact) is as much something women do as men. Women can also prove to be quite the autocratic, ruthless and cruel leaders that their male counterparts can be, as feminist advocate Nicholas Kristof reminded us in the pages of the New York Times in his September 30th opinion piece “Women Hurting Women”. But before we get into the business of deciding that given the chance, women will behave just as men do or have done, let’s remember, that we have not yet reached the holy grail of ‘critical mass’, so we don’t actually know. If women were at critical mass, – defined by the Committee which monitors states parties compliance with the ‘bill of rights for women’, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as at least 35% across all institutions of power including the media, everywhere in the world – then we would be at a point where we can judge if men and women in general handle power differently or the same. But we’re not there yet, by a long way. Right now, it’s still a man’s world, and the women that are making it to the top are still doing it in that context, some by reaching a helping hand down the ladder to women below, and others kicking the ladder away in echo of what perhaps was done to them before. That’s not telling you how the critical mass of women would behave in power, it’s telling you how those individual women behave when the bulk of power is still held by the other sex. Good luck to you, Julia Gillard.

But, with all that said, there are still other complexities for women to navigate than just the challenge of on going sex discrimination. There are women who are fully conscious of their female identity, and who may also be fully aware of the marginalization, which has ensued from it. But they may still choose in the interests of a community to which they belong, to identify more strongly with that group then with their ‘gender group’. To expect women to stand apart from their community’s ethnic movements is to misread the historical experience of the many ways in which women are embedded as members of a particular ethnic community in the struggles of those groups, and nowhere more so than in conflicts which turn on ethnicity and identity issues. It’s proven hard so far to find spaces in those conflicts where it matters less that you are a Rohingya woman, for example, than that militarization, a culture of impunity and exclusionary politics are laying waste to society and jeopardizing the future of its children.

In the Philippines, where this very month an important framework agreement has been signed between the government and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, many (though not all) women have expressed a desire to describe themselves and act first as members of the “Bangasamoro” group, which describes their ethnicity, than as women. This is partly because of the painting of the ‘gender agenda’ as a Western imported agenda – a contention that listening to the conversation of women’s groups in pretty much any conflict-affected country in the world will quickly dispel; but they also because are looking for ways to pursue very gendered priority issues – like pervasive domestic violence – in ways which can be integrated with the struggle to maintain their distinctive culture and the community identity which goes with it. It’s important to remember that it’s up to those women, or the feminist Qu’ranic scholars, and all the others juggling these complicated labels, to figure out when they want to be who, and the broader purposes they want those labels to serve.

So yes, you can get a bullet in your back for speaking the wrong language in the wrong place; for praying a certain way a certain number of times a day; for casting your ‘secret’ ballot against the diktat of the hidden eye that watches; for being a girl who speaks her mind and heads off to school. Labels are dangerous, in different and often worse ways for women than for men; playing with them may be very much like playing with fire. But, echoing the slogan of another defining campaign on women’s rights, let’s not forget, it’s a woman’s right to choose.

Rita Manchanda: Research Director of South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) and has written extensively on security and human rights issues in the region. In particular she has intellectually shaped the discourse on feminizing security. Among her many publications is the volume Women War and Peace in South Asia: beyond Victimhood to Agency which has been a pioneering study on feminist theorizing and praxis on conflict and peace building.

Antonia Potter Prentice: Prior to her current work on gender, peace and security as Senior Associate to the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office, Senior Advisor to the Dialogue Advisory Group and consultant for organizations including the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the Global Network of Women Peacemakers and Terre des Hommes, she was Country Director for Oxfam GB in Indonesia, its largest programme in the SE Asia region. She initiated the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue’s work on women, gender and peacemaking and has worked for a number of NGOs, mostly in Asia, having lived in Afghanistan, America (New York), Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Switzerland (Geneva), Timor Leste, and currently Belgium (Brussels). Antonia is a Board Member of the Democratic Progress Institute and is married with three small children. She is starting out on Twitter at Antonia_pp.

To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.